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Animated April: Gulliver's Travels (1939)

In honor of our annual animation program and the 3D cartoons that will run at the Wexner Center before the show, we spend April looking at animated feature films.

RODNEY BOWCOCKGulliver’s Travels (1939) is of course based (partially anyway) on the classic novel by Jonathan Swift. The film focuses specifically on one of the segments of the book, in which Gulliver’s ship is crashed onto the beach of Liliput and becomes involved in their local lives and politics. That’s essentially where the similarities between the book and the film end. In the film, Gulliver enters the land in the midst of a war regarding the marriage of the children of King Little of Liliput and King Bombo of neighboring nation, Blefuscu. The war is regarding which song should be played at the wedding, the anthem of Lilliput (Faithful) or the anthem of Blefuscu (Forever). Gulliver is discovered by town crier Gabby and upon awakening, Gulliver finds himself the target of an assassination attempt by three spies from Lilliput, Sneak, Snoop and Stitch. Naturally, and I don’t consider this to be a spoiler alert, Gulliver saves the prince and princess’s lives and offers a compromise for the two kingdoms that put an end to the war and everyone lives happily ever after.

SG: The first thing I noticed was how long the credits are. Habitual classic movie fans will note how short opening credit sequences were in the pre-60s era especially in comparison to today's films. This movie includes long lists of animators in the opening, which was very unusual at the time. 

The parallels to Snow White are clear. We have several realistic human characters contrasted with cute miniature ones. The singing is in a falsetto operetta style. Both films used rotoscoping, the tracing of outlines of footage of a real person moving. The concept was invented by Max Fleischer so naturally his studio employed it in this film. I think it would have been more successful though if only giant Gulliver was rotoscoped. It illustrates his otherness compared to the Lilliputians and the Blefuscuians. Unfortunately, the studio opted to also rotoscope the prince and princess, which doesn't make sense if they're supposed to be the children of these tiny cartoonish creatures. I've always felt the way rotoscoped animation moved was slightly unnerving, which works well in the case of monsters, or if the intent is to create something ultra-realistic, but mixed with the traditional drawn style of animation it stands out in a way that removes us from the story. 

RB: The film of course bears the influence of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which was released two years prior. Disney’s initial feature film was considered a big risk, but it was extremely successful, which caused other studios to take notice. Paramount quickly instructed the Fleischer brothers to get a feature prepared for release during the Christmas season of 1939 and production started in the spring of 1938, which means that it was produced on a far tighter schedule than the four years that it took Disney to make Snow White. This would require a lot of overtime. Fleischer had already had trouble from a bitter labor strike in 1937, so presuming that labor laws in Florida would be less stringent than in New York where his studio had been based for decades, and also needing room for a staff that would soon more than triple in size, he also moved full production to sunny Miami, Florida.

This increase in size included many animators and story men (some of whom could double as voice actors) that were lured away from the California studios (including a few that had worked on Snow White) as well as over one hundred lower skilled employees that were hired away from local art schools in Miami. This caused a rift between the New York and California animators and writers. The California writers essentially rewrote the entire story, which had previously been completed in New York before the move. This is an interesting thing to consider, because while much of Gulliver is technically competent, the biggest flaw seems to be in the story. The characters are largely undeveloped, especially the realistic human characters. The film is nearly half over before Gulliver walks or speaks, and even then he largely utters nothing more than “My, my” over and over and over again. The prince and princess also rendered realistically (although not as realistic as the meticulously rotoscoped Gulliver) barely speak throughout the entire film unless they’re singing. Because of this, it’s difficult for the viewer to feel any emotion or connection to them at all. Instead, the focus is primarily on the cartoonish Gabby and the rival kings, who, to me anyway, are too obnoxious to feel any real relationship to.

SG: I felt this too. The story moves slowly, with a clear emphasis on the artistic merits of the film. The backgrounds are lush. With many of the scenes taking place at night, the colors are deep and saturated, beautiful to behold, and a noteworthy contrast to the simple and bright animation of the Lilliputians. The animation is impressive too. The way the artists rendered light felt realistic as if they were shining real flames or lamps onto the scenes. I noticed the glow of the firelight on Gulliver's face in a night scene as he watched a play being performed for his benefit, and the flashes of lightning in the opening storm were very well done too. 

It seems the focus on the art left less time to develop the characters or draw the audience into the story. Which side are we supposed to be on? Should we care about the wedding and whether it happens? Do we want Gulliver to stay here forever or to return home? It all just unfolds and left me feeling indifferent. 

RB: To tie in the film with the Christmas season, Paramount launched an enormous marketing campaign. John McElwee at Greenbriar Picture Shows expounded on the marketing saturation that Paramount foist upon the Christmas 1939 shopping season. Everything from toys to lamps, radios, scarves, wallets, handbags, glassware, board games…you name it, Gulliver and Gabby adorned it for that brief season. Over 60 separate licensing agreements were signed all in an attempt to make Gulliver the must-see event of winter 1939-1940. It worked. Despite going well over budget and being behind schedule more often than not, the film grossed over a million dollars in profit, a success no matter how you figure it.

SGScreenland's Delight Evans compared Gabby to Dopey and said, "With the producers at their wits' ends trying to satisfy at one and the same time the critics' demand for adult films and the Legion of Decency's requirements, a show like Gulliver's Travels seems to be the answer to everybody's prayer."

William R. Weaver wrote in Motion Picture Daily, "Gulliver is a much more amusing picture than Snow White, much stronger in comedy values. Snow White is a tenderer, sweeter picture, stronger in sentimental appeal."

Motion Picture Herald's reviewer said, "The producers of this motion picture version may not have looked into the subject beyond a study of the illustrated picture books that have long been fixtures of children's nurseries, but that, perhaps, does not matter... This synthesized version bothers very little with characterization and undertakes little or no temperamental or cultural differentiation between the Giant and the Lilliputians."

RB: In spite the high profits and positive critical reception, local exhibitors still were unsure how to handle such a film locally. “Good show for the kids up to ten years old. I cannot see, though, how anyone could expect adults to pay to see these feature length cartoons,” said J.J. Sanderson of the State Theatre in Loris, South Carolina. “You won’t get rich on this one. Not enough adult business,” was the gripe of A.J. Turcotte at the Star Theatre in Newmarket, New Hampshire. “Adults were totally unimpressed, except to comment on the jerky movements of the figures,” noted M.R. Harrington of the Avalon Theatre in Clatskinie, Oregon. “Just a long cartoon,” stated (obviously) Leon C. Bolduc of the Majestic Theatre in Conway, New Hampshire. Still, some noted the technical accomplishments of the film. “Color is splendid, songs are already hits and the movements of the characters considerably more smooth than anything yet produced,” opined J.H. Abbott of the Grand Theatre in Georgetown, Ohio.

SG: To avoid direct competition, Disney pushed back the release of Pinocchio a few months. Their studio won the animated feature war. Fleischer released Mr. Bug Goes to Town in 1941 and went bankrupt the following year.  

RBGulliver’s Travels has gained something of a reputation among baby boomers thanks to seemingly endless reissues and I recall numerous hellish public-domain releases over the years. Sentimentality aside, the film plays more like a rough draft of a better film, the technical accomplishments being outweighed by the endless rotoscoping (which admittedly, Disney also utilized in Snow White) and the undeveloped storyline. I wonder what the film would’ve been like if the initial plan to star Popeye had come to fruition. A feature of Jack Mercer’s mutterings and adlibs is fodder to my imagination. As is, Gulliver’s Travels is a film that never fully lives up to its expectations. Two and a half stars.

SG: I am a fan of Fleischer cartoons, much more than Disney films overall. I like that they often tackled sad or sentimental topics and that they were slightly rougher, less cutesy. If Disney was MGM, Fleischer was Warner Brothers. The choice of a classic novel for the story was a page right out of Disney's book, but with a prestigious story it seems the studio lost the heart that makes their short cartoons so great. The Thunderbean Blu-ray release is beautiful and is the best way to watch this film, but even an amazing restoration can't turn this curiosity into a classic. Two point five stars. 

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